Human - Nature Connections: What the Research Says
Is there a need for a place like Three Otters? Yes. We have spent the last 20 years conducting research and evaluation in public health and education. Over the years, in working with families and youth, we have heard the same mantra: “There is not enough time. I can’t manage all of my responsibilities and I don’t do anything well.” People feel tremendous pressure, youth included. Stress levels are off the charts and there is a growing sense of urgency to always be the best and out perform the competition. We are what John Muir described over 100 years ago: “a tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.” Despite the pressures (or perhaps because of them), we still manage to distract ourselves with a tremendous amount of screen time each and every day.
A 2010 study by the Kaiser Foundation found that youth (ages 8-18) spend an average of 7.5 hours a day texting, on the computer, or watching TV. If you consider that they often engage more than one form of media at a time it equates to 10.75 hours per day or 75.25 hours per week. Adults are no better. A recent Harvard study found that 26% of adults sleep with their Smartphone’s within reach and over 50% report checking email obsessively on vacation. In his 2010 book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr reports that, on average, Americans spend at least 8 hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Heavy media use is correlated with lower grades, higher rates of depression, aggression, narcissism, distraction, memory loss, and weight gain. Indeed, one study found that tech addiction among youth is correlated with atrophy of the connective tissues in areas of the brain involved with behavioral and emotional control.
With that much screen time, it’s not surprising that nature-based recreation has declined 35 percent in the last four decades according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Williams, 2012). In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American child spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day (Juster, 2004). Richard Louv, in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon.
The move indoors has had a dramatic impact on our youth – childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last 20 years (CDC, 2008), the US is the largest consumer of ADHD medications (Sax, 2000), US kids are among the least happy children on the planet (Unicef, 2007), and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen dramatically (Delate et al, 2004).
So, how can nature help? An expanding body of literature suggests that exposure to nature can reduce stress and enhance pleasure, memory and attention. Japan leads the world in nature based therapy programs and their leading researcher reports that “stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy.” When you are relaxing in nature, the body produces less cortisol which revs up the body’s stress response. Memory and attention also benefit from time in nature. Natural settings alleviate directed attention fatigue (DAF) which occurs when the brain must constantly manage competing stimuli like texting and watching TV at the same time. Many studies lend support to nature’s healing effects. For example, a Michigan State study found that volunteers who walked through a park for 50 minutes scored higher on subsequent tests of recall compared with their performance after walking down busy streets for the same amount of time.
Until fairly recently, time in nature was all the human species knew. Genetically, a close link with nature is what we long for, it’s in our blood. Humans, after all, are nature. The human-nature divide that we created is an illusion drummed up by modern comforts. Getting back to nature reminds us of who we are, it eases stress, connects us to all five senses and levels the playing field. The natural world shifts our focus from competition to cooperation; from individualism to community. Nature takes only what it needs and reminds us to do the same. In short, time outdoors softens us, helps us to get centered and connect to what matters. Most importantly, we learn to trust one another again as well as in the abundance of nature itself. Dr. Craig Chalquist, author of several books about the human-nature connections and founder of the Ecotherapy Program at JFK University in Pleasant Hill, CA, conducted extensive research and compiled the list above on the positive mental and physical impacts of time in nature.